With the start of Euro 2012 just over a week away, Goal.com International's Spain expert Ben Hayward profiles Malaga and La Roja midfielder Santi Cazorla
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Last summer, Villarreal had a decision to make. Feeling the pinch of a financial crisis sweeping Spain into debt and disillusionment, funds needed to be raised.
They had two options: sell striker Giuseppe Rossi to Barcelona or let local hero Santi Cazorla leave El Madrigal. They chose the latter.
Outside observers hailed the club's ambition in hanging on to Rossi. Fans did not. Time forward 10 months and Cazorla had helped Malaga to their best-ever finish and the zenith that is the Champions League. Villarreal, meanwhile, were relegated.
Villarreal had sold Cazorla before, letting their midfielder join Recreativo for a cut-price €600,000 in 2006. But back then, they quickly realised their error as Santi shot Recre to an eighth-placed success and claimed Don Balon's Player of the Year award. So back he went to El Madrigal for double the fee.
This time, however, there will be no prodigal return from Andalucia - Cazorla is gone for good.
But Villarreal's loss is Spain's gain. The 27-year-old has been a sensation in the south, just as he had been before, scoring nine times as Manuel Pellegrini's men rose gradually to claim fourth place in La Liga. The highlight? A last-gasp leveller from Cazorla himself with a fantastic free kick at the Santiago Bernabeu to deny Real Madrid (a team he once turned down) and make Malaga believe they could compete with the very best.
This summer, Vicente del Bosque had a decision to make. With an embarrassment of riches in the centre of the park, the Spain coach needed to omit one or two of his midfield maestros.
But Cazorla wasn't one of them.
|"When I play with Spain I give everything. It is a privilege to play for Spain and in this shirt"
- Santi Cazorla
In 2010, Del Bosque selected the midfielder in his provisional World Cup squad despite an injury-hit campaign at Villarreal. The player was thrilled: "Just to be called up is a reward," he said. And although he was ultimately left behind, it had been a sign: Get fit and there is a place for you here.
Since then, Cazorla has been a virtual ever-present in Spain's squads. Back in shape and back to his best, the midfielder is ready to repeat the role he played in Euro 2008 - that of a luxury leader waiting in the wings to orchestrate openings and dismantle defences.
Perhaps, however, Cazorla could be in line for a more pivotal part in La Roja's quest for a third title in succession. With Xavi feeling fatigue following another season of exhausting endeavour, Cesc Fabregas looking below his best in the second half of the campaign and other midfield men - such as Andres Iniesta, David Silva and Juan Mata - possibly promoted to more advanced areas, Spain could use some fresh faces in their midfield - particularly with a game every few days in the continental competition.
Despite his increased importance, which saw him star and score in the 2-0 Euro 2012 warm-up win against Serbia, Cazorla has lost none of his modesty: "When I play with Spain I give everything. It is a privilege to play for Spain and in this shirt."
Approaching his peak at 27, with 40 caps to his name and blossoming into one of Spain's finest footballers, Cazorla is primed for a special role with La Roja this summer. Step forward Santi.
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